Down and Out in Earl’s Court

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Neverwhat?” blog, chronicling his research for directing our spring MainStage production of Neverwhere. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

Down and Out in Earl’s Court

The earl in Neverwhere is nameless. He is so old his person and title are synonymous. The noun earl was used to distinguish nobility from those who weren’t noble, the churls. The word first appears in Beowulf as “eorla,” which here generally means a brave knight or warrior. The King Hrothgar is sitting amidst them. The earl of Earl’s court has something of the Anglo-Saxon about him. His elderly man at arms is Dagvard- his name from the Anglo-Saxon means Dag or day and vard or guard or day-guard. The other man at arms is Halvard and the meaning of the name is a bit more opaque to me. It feels like he should be either the hall guard or the night guard but hal is associated with rocks and sloping hills in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary. (Ah yes, I still have my Anglo-Saxon dictionary from a time when I thought I might be a scholar of this sort of thing so moving it from city to city and apartment to apartment has finally proved worthwhile.) Thus it is also significant that the poetry quoted in the Earl’s court is in the Anglo-Saxon mode which uses alliteration, “Brave the battling blade, flashes the furious fire . . .”

Just to speed through a little bit of English history. The early Celtic inhabitants (who themselves may have immigrated to the Island country) have been continually overrun by other people who thought it looked like a nice little green island for pillaging or possibly settling down and building a summer home. The Angles, the Saxon and the Jutes (from Jutland which refers to Denmark) are all early Viking tribes from the areas that are modern Scandinavia that over a long period of time invaded, settled then were invaded upon by other early Viking tribes who either forgot or didn’t care that these were some early cousins. The name England is derived from Angle-land. (There were others who have thought it was a nice little island the Romans and French prominent among them.) Stephen Smith in his book, Underground London, describes a Anglo-Saxon cross found underneath All Hallows that is carved with the word “Werhere” which he says Peter Ackroyd has said strongly suggests, “we are here.”

There is another charming nod to this history sitting on the train platform where the Earl’s train court arrives. The beggar Lear is sitting on the platform. King Lear is based on the legend of an early Celtic king. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the foolish king divides his kingdom and loses his power, his mind, and his daughters. Of course Lear in Shakespeare does not live but his Neverwhere namesake sits begging outside the court of a later ruler.

There is a fool in King Lear (apart from Lear) who is known only as the Fool. In Earl’s court there is a fool named Tooley. Tooley is a London street in Southwark. It is apparently a corruption of St. Olave’s church, St. Olave or Olaf being the patron saint of Norway. It was apparently the home of many wealthy citizens in the Middle Ages. Since it was close to the docks it was for a time known as “London’s Larder” It is now home to the campy London Dungeon which features actor recreations of gory bits of London history. Tooley Street was also the location of a cheap boarding house where writer George Orwell lived played the part of a beggar while he researched social conditions for his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Richard is able to imagine the earl as he was when he was “a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, and a terrifying foe.” The earl’s court has undergone a similar decline to Tooley Street and similar to the end of Beowulf. (I have linked to the Gummere translation but if you get a chance read the Seamus Heaney translation.)In reading it again, was reminded of one of the final episodes of Beowulf in which the aging king Beowulf goes out to face a dragon with a young hero. There is a sense of decline in that the old King can no longer protect his people but the young hero, Wiglaf, is not up to the task and will not be the leader that Beowulf was. Together they slay the dragon but Beowulf dies of his wounds and lives only in the after-singing.

The earl is the one who assumes Door is out for vengeance he is also getting old and his memory is muddled. Hunter calls the earl’s real domain “Things lost. Things forgotten.” He has collected not only the lost detritus of London above compressed in London below but fragments of history and old alliances and knowledge of Islington which enables him to help Door.

A side note for those who are getting tired of obscure footnotes. I am looking forward to watching the first run through of the play tonight. All this research is fun but it will be nice to see the story “on its feet..”